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The Mighty Words: Writers of Protest and Revolution

Speak of protest and one speaks of proletariat literature. The notion of labor leaders and activists carry with it the stipulation of the simplistic and naïve. And yet, Filomeno V. Aguilar, social historian, writing for the Philippine Studies asked a question about the origin of it all—Agoncillo and his favoring of Bonifacio and the revolt of the masses: “The proletarian label attached to the Katipunan has also been contested. In Roots of Dependency, Jonathan Fast and Jim Richardson noted the ‘oversimplification and looseness of terminology’ in Agoncillo’s work.” Continuing the quote, Aguilar wrote: “Subsequently, Richardson has provided data on the class composition of the Katipunan based on information on 136 persons who had joined the movement prior to 1896, most of whom held leadership positions in the Katipunan’s branches and popular councils. None of them were poor or held lowpaid occupations because many of them were employed by private companies or the colonial state; Their wages or salaries were either around or above the median for the city in the mid1890s.”

Be that as it may, there is no denying the power of Bonifacio and the poetry ascribed to him. In the first issue of Kalayaan, the newspaper of the Katipunan, dated March 1896, a poem came out. This was “PagIbig sa Tinubuang Lupa.” Bearing the initials “A.I.B.,” it was interpreted as an acronym for Agapito Bagumbayan, and was taken as a nomdeguerre of Bonifacio.

As noted by historian Jim Richardson, it was published under the initials “A. I. B.” which was generally understood to stand for “Agapito Bagumbayan,” which was the pseudonym placed beneath another contribution to the paper—“Ang dapat mabatid ng mga tagalog”—and that both pieces were written by Bonifacio.

The poem sets the tone for the tradition of protest poetry that was yet to come. It was a position that placed the individual as ennobled by his roots. There is no mention of nation or state but the lines in the poem present the bayan as where all one’s ideals are sourced and where one’s love for this origin becomes the strength for a protopatriotism.

ANDRES BONIFACIO
(30 November 1863—10 May 1897)

In the first stanza of the poem, the power of man against the oppressor—an idea that is going to be developed later—is the love for “bayan.” It is a love that has the traits of pagkadalisay (pure) and pagkadakila (noble or great). While it may appear as individualistic at first, the love for one’s tinubuang lupa (birthplace) outweighs all other love, i.e. personal love against the collective.

This love also is cured of sentimentality when one reads the line about how one could offer one’s blood, wealth, wisdom, persistence and labor, the last hidden in the word “pagod.” One offers more also over and above all those mentioned; one offers one’s life.

The nativistic pursuit of the revolutionaries, i.e., Katipunan, is greatly articulated in the remembrance of the past (ang nakaraang panahon ng aliw) and the future when people are freed from slavery.

The poem is romantic. By that, we go back to the early protest literature where passion dominates more the issues made by coherent confrontation of the structures, from which domination is sourced and where repression is turned into social realities.

By the 1870s, Bonifacio’s poem (or given the contention, whoever wrote it) was turned into a battlecry. Transformed into a song, or delivered in whole or in part as a theatre piece or made as voiceover in political tableauxvivant, the poem resuscitated an evolutionary approach to social and labor unrest in the context of colonialism, clearly demarcated with the arrival of the Spanish, continuing into the arrival of the Americans and their acquisition of the islandnation, breaking apart in the rearticulated imaginary of the Filipino culture as colonized and oppressed.

It is facile but not fair to the movement and the writers to look at the literature on labor or view protest writings in terms of histories evolving along a straight line. To do this is to ask the question, what follows Bonifacio? Who follows his writings?

That there was a revolution did not solve agrarian and labor unrest. What can crystallize to our writers’ response to histories is the various attempts to express before the nation, as the writers supposed them to exist, and to the world.

LANGUAGE OF THE MASSES

LOPE K. SANTOS
(25 September 1879—1 May 1963)

Born in 1879, Lope K. Santos, was a former senator of the Philippines. Before becoming a politician, he was known for writing a novel, Banaag at Sikat (From Early Dawn to Full Light) in 1906. The work is described as a “socialist” novel.

Even as it is merely conjectural to say that Santos followed Bonifacio, certain factors in his family background cannot be ignored. It is said the father of Santos was incarcerated because the Spanish authorities discovered copies of José Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere and Bonifacio’s Ang Kalayaan in his possession.

In the Revolution of 1896, Santos became part of one of the revolutionary forces. He was a purveyor of the national language and the names he had given his children harked back to the times when the country was not yet Hispanized. He had three children named Lakambini, Luwalhati and Makaaraw.

Santos founded his own newspaper in 1900, calling it Ang Kaliwanagan. In late 1900, Santos started writing his own newspaper Ang Kaliwanagan. The period is important because by this time, socialism was an emerging thought among writers and intellectuals. But Santos was no armchair ideologue. When illustrado labor leader José Ma. Dominador Goméz was charged and sentenced by the Supreme Court of sedition and illegal association against the government in 1903, the group of Santos would bring into his fold Goméz’s labor group, known then as Union Obrera Democratica Filipina (Philippine Democratic Labor Union). Under Santos, the group was renamed as Union del Trabajo de Filipinas.

The student of metaphor would be tempted to see the light in Santos’s use of “liwanag” in his own ideological quest. He would call his first novel, Banaag at Sikat. The book did not only deal with the tenets of socialism, it also was clear in its trajectory—labor reforms should come from the government.

Banaag at Sikat is acknowledged to be the inspiration for the setting up of the Socialist Party of the Philippines. According to the document, Southeast Asian Languages and Literature, edited by Patricia M. Herbert and Anthony Crothers Milner, Banaag at Sikat was also one of the works that triggered the 1946 Hukbalahap, or simply Huk.

Lope K. Santos would go on to write books on grammar and was one of the first to campaign for a national language for the country.

POSTHUMOUS MANIFESTO     

CARLOS BULOSAN
(24 November 1913—11 September 1956)

America is in the Heart is a title that we remember Carlos S. Bulosan by. It is also a monument to irony, both for the author and the theme of the discourse.

By the time we learned about the contribution of Carlos S. Bulosan, he was already long dead. Tragic is that death because the labor concerns may have shifted in the Philippines and in America, but the issues of structured inequality remain.

The poet of those years was Bulosan and his words were and are now the rallying cry of Filipinos in diaspora—migrants like Bulosan but, unlike the Ilocano writer, more settled in the new land. The survival problems of Filipinos and other migrants may have diminished for those whose intellectual acumen and class origins allowed them to think in the relative comfort of the academe.

Carlos S. Bulosan was born on November 24, 1913. A description of Bulosan was always that of a Filipino novelist and poet who was writing in the English languge. Migrating to America in 1930, Bulosan appeared to be an extension of the beginning of an intellectual phenomenon in the country—Philippine Literature in English. 

In what is considered his semiautobiographical essay, Bulosan would issue his act of faith, or doubt, about this new land: “It is but fair to say that America is not a land of one race or one class of men. We are all Americans that have toiled and suffered and known oppression and defeat, from the first Indian that offered peace in Manhattan to the last Filipino pea pickers. America is not bound by geographical latitudes. America is not merely a land or an institution. America is in the hearts of men that died for freedom; it is also in the eyes of men that are building a new world. America is a prophecy of a new society of men: of a system that knows no sorrow or strife or suffering. America is a warning to those who would try to falsify the ideals of freemen.”

How he arrived at that robust hope in a land that showed what could be the first systematic impression of the duplicities of migrant labor is a contribution from Bulosan. Those lines would light up the path of future critiques of America, the land of milk and honey. The land is at best wide but there is a narrow world for those who were not born there.

It was, however, in 1943, when Bulosan’s work would allow him to secure a kind of fame in the United States. And this was when he was invited to contribute his writing to the Saturday Evening Post.

There was a touring exhibition featuring a suite of oil paintings by Post illustrator and painter Norman Rockwell, each painting corresponding to one of the “four freedoms” espoused by U.S. Pres. Franklin Delano Roosevelt during his 1941 State of the Union Address.

The Post commissioned four writers to pen essays to accompany each Freedom painting—“Freedom of Speech” by Booth Tarkington, “Freedom of Worship” by Will Durant, “Freedom from Want” by Carlos Bulosan, and “Freedom from Fear” by Stephen Vincent Benét.

Bulosan was an obscure artist compared to the other three celebrities. His essay, “Freedom from Want,” was published in the Post on March 6, 1943. It spoke of a condition that Bulosan only knew too well, with the rest of the Filipino workers in canneries and vineyards and plantations all over America.

How he was “discovered” can be answered by many anecdotes that surface when one revisits the life of an unknown who, overnight, assumes a contradictory positionality in a setting that was both supportive and undermining of his status.

It is said that another writer, Louis Adamic recommended Bulosan to his agent. It is also said that the Post was really in search of a starving artist. Almost with a literal poetic justice, Bulosan would contribute his essay, “Freedom from Want.”

Listen to Bulosan: “It is only when we have plenty to eat—plenty of everything—that we begin to understand what freedom means. To us, freedom is not an intangible thing.”

He would end the essay with these exhortation: “What do we want? We want complete security and peace. We want to share the promises and fruits of American life. We want to be free from fear and hunger.”

Bulosan left the country for America at the age of 17. This man—from an impoverished family in Binalonan, Pangasinan—would be active in the labor movement along the Pacific coast.

UNITED STATES GREAT DEPRESSION IN 1930s. Long line of people waiting to be fed in New York City (Photo credit: National Archives and Records Administration, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)Portrait

In a way, Bulosan came at the right time and the right place. Proletariat literature was on the rise in the United States in the 1920s. Critics would point out how writers like Upton Sinclair and William Carlos Williams wrote pieces that could be considered as springing from a consciousness answering to the anxieties of the downtrodden.

There were writers also during this period who were marked Marxist and/or Leftist.  There were no direct connections yet between being a Marxist and being a communist. In some junctures, the proletarian writings became subsumed under avantgarde literature.

Magazines also accommodated proletarian poetry and literature.

By the 1930s, in the Great Depression, it was very clear that the working class was heavily disenfranchised. No one, it seemed, was looking out for them. Thinkers and writers scrambled to find solutions to the giant problems posed by the Depression. Anarchy, from the perspective of the shaky establishment, was providing the laborers options together with the other two “isms” of the day—Socialism and Communism.

From Milton Cohen in his book, Beleaguered Poets and Leftist Critics, we can understand the character of the writings of the period. One main view summed up by Cohen is the idea that human conflict was now seen as part of a social perspective—not personal.  In this literature, there is a clear demarcation between the tenants and landlords, the rich and the poor.

For Cohen, literature has a use—to create a consciousness and to use the writings imbued with the said consciousness to “politicize” the reader and to work towards a “revolution.” The writer has a distinct role in the class struggle.

One poem of Bulosan is illustrative of this newfound identity, certainly a product of the times and the conditions confronting him and other workers. The poem is “If You Want to Know What We Are.”

The poem begins with a claim of labor as part of nature, of environment, of elements inalienable:

“If you want to know what we are who inhabit/forest mountain rivershore, who harness/beast, living steel, martial music (that classless/language of the heart), who celebrate labour,/wisdom of the mind, peace of the blood.”

From an animistic promontory, the claim of the poem shifts to the laborer realizing the potency of the surroundings: “If you want to know what we are who become/animate at the rain’s metallic ring, the stone’s/accumulated strength, who tremble in the wind’s/blossoming (that enervates earth’s potentialities),/who stir just as flowers unfold to the sun.”

The poet is then gripped by the reality of “being powerful and deathless in countless counterparts, and more explicitly, each part pregnant with hope, each hope supreme,/each supremacy classless, each classlessness/nourished by unlimited splendor of comradeship.”

The claim as to number, common in the manifestoes of the period, rings sweet and brave, as the poem declares “We are multitudes the world over, millions everywhere;/in violent factories, sordid tenements, crowded cities.”

Here is Bulosan, in his own intellectualism, embracing who he was in the lines about  the “men and women reading books, searching/in the pages of  history for the lost word, the key/to the mystery of living peace, imperishable joy”

Bulosan is lofty, almost lapidary, in the tone he sets for these lines: “We are the living dream of dead men everywhere,/the unquenchable truth that classmemories create/to stagger the infamous world with prophecies/of unlimited happiness_a deathless humanity…”

Large population of unemployed in desperate need of work and looking for jobs during the Great Depression (Photo credit: National Archives and Records Administration, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

It is no mere sentimentality with which Bulosan in his consciousness articulates what he wanted accomplished. He does not deny the violence the monolithic capitalism against which being a laborer, a man linked to the land and the beauty of the natural, is measured: “If you want to know what we are, observe/ the bloody club smashing heads, the bayonet/ penetrating hallowed breasts, giving no mercy; watch the/ bullet crashing upon armorless citizens;/ look at the teargas choking the weakened lung.”

In the present dispensation of Black Lives Matter, where the song, “Strange Fruit,” made an anthem by the great Billie Holiday, the lines about racism against the other “races” echo in these faint lines: “If you want to know what we are, see the lynch/trees blossoming, the hysterical mob rioting”

Bulosan is not blind to the systemic corruption of the banker and the gangster who kill and run free.

Bulosan does not stop there with the system. He celebrates the collective, the main factor in being one of the many, in lines that are both sensual and brave: “we are the desires of anonymous men everywhere,/who impregnate the wide earth’s lustrous wealth/with a gleaming flourescence; we are the new thoughts/ and the new foundations, the new verdure of the mind;/we are the new hope new joy life everywhere.”

Walt Whitman and all those poets who roamed the earth to find in the ordinariness of living the poetry of new horizon is almost echoed in the relentless rise of Bulosan’s poem as it surges to ending: “We are the vision and the star, the quietus of pain;/we are the terminals of inquisition, the hiatuses/of a new crusade; we are the subterraean subways/of suffering; we are the will of dignities;/we are the living testament of a flowering race.”

And the ending is terribly unpoetic, direct as it is, and robbing the metaphors of their hidden charm and strength. Because at the end, Bulosan proffers a condition, which he also resolves:

If you want to know what we are/WE ARE REVOLUTION!

It is, however, an ending that the revolutionary, not the formalist critic, is pleased.

Bulosan never returned to the Philippines. By the time he died, on September 11, 1956, the agrarian unrest in the Philippines was reaching another peak. This was the Hukbalapahap movement.

PRISON POEMS

AMADO V. HERNANDEZ
(13 September 1903—24 March 1970)

Bulosan and another writer, Amado V. Hernandez would never be comrades facetoface. But both writers were writing at almost the same time, on subjects that were similar but each using languages that were not only opposite but disparate in terms of how the language served the protest they wanted heard. Bulosan would write in English; Hernandez would rage in Tagalog, then, or Filipino now.

Amado Vera Hernandez was born on September 13, 1903 and died on March 24, 1970.

As a young writer, his writings became known to other more establisted literary figures. His poems and short stories would be anthologised in Clodualdo del Mundo’s Parolang Ginto and Alejandro Abadilla’s Talaang Bughaw.

As a labor leader, he was consistent in his criticism of social injustices, inequalities and oppression. He would be imprisoned later for his involvement in the communist movement.

Hernandez was a very young man when he began contributing for a newspaper called Watawat, and became an editor of another publication.

He was only nineteen years of age, in 1922, when he joined two writers, Lope K. Santos and Jose Corazon de Jesus in a literary society dubbed Aklatang Bayan.

In 1932, he married the Filipino actress Atang de la Rama. Both of them would later be recognized as National Artists: Hernandez for Literature (1973) and de la Rama for Theater, Dance and Music (1987).

In 1941, Hernandez joined the resistance movement against the Japanese. He assumed the role of intelligence man of the guerilla outfit he was part of. As a guerilla, it is said, Hernandez came into contact with the Hukbalahap movement, which was founded by Luis Taruc and other individuals who would move on to become part of communist ideologues. It was from this contact that writers and social observers believe Hernandez’s formed his procommunist thinking.  It is a thinking though that belittles this writer’s capacity to observe, write down what he saw, and act on the troubling socioeconomic realities gathered from his vision.

Filipino guerillas (Photo credit: U.S. Army, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Hernandez would be known for his sociopolitical novels, which would be a treasure trove of symbols and metaphors that would grace speeches, theatrical presentations and effigies in the demonstrations staged in those decades and up to the present.

From novels and poems, Amado V. Hernandez would also write important essays that do not necessarily confront social realities and revolution. Two of these essays are: “Si Atang at ang Dulaan” (Atang and the Theater) and “Si Jose Corazon de Jesus at ang Ating Panulaan” (Jose Corazon de Jesus and Our Poetry)

After the war, Hernandez would lead prolabor protests; one of this massive strikes happened in May 1948. A year before this, Hernandez involved himself in a labor federation called Congress of Labor Organizations (CLO). At this point, he was already tagged as following the Marxist philosophy advocating revolution and the way to social change. When the Philippine military began its operations against the “communist” movement, Hernandez was arrested as one of the leaders of the rebellion.

President Elpidio Quirino receiving Hukbalahap leaders at Malacañan Palace, among them is Luis Taruc. As a guerilla, it is said, Hernandez came into contact with the Hukbalahap movement, which was founded by Luis Taruc (Photo credit: Malacañang Palace, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

He would be imprisoned and although the authorities could not find any evidence so that a charge could be filed against him, Hernandez would begin his protracted stay in jail. The Hernandez case interested stellar names in law—Senator Claro M. Recto, former President José P. Laurel, and Claudio Teehankee who would later be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court—but he remained in jail. It was in jail where he wrote many of his important works.

Written while he was in jail was his acclaimed masterpiece, Luha ng Buwaya (Tears of the Crocodile) and portions of another novel, Mga Ibong Mandaragit (Birds of Prey).

It was also while his appeal was pending, in jail, that Hernandez wrote one of his most popular poems, Isang Dipang Langit (A Stretch of Heaven; in some translation, A Piece of Heaven).

Marvel at one of the powerful stanzas in the poem and translated by Cirilo Bautista, another National Artist in Literature. In Filipino:

Sa munting dungawan, tanging abot-malas

ay sandipang langit na puno ng luha,

maramot na birang ng pusong may sugat,

watawat ng aking pagkapariwara.

Sintalim ng kidlat ang mata ng tanod,

sa pintong may susi’t walang makalapit;

sigaw ng bilanggo sa katabing moog,

anaki’y atungal ng hayop sa yungib.

In English:

From the narrow window all I can see

Is an armstretch of sky full of tears,

a meager cover to a wounded heart,

a ghastly emblem of my falls and fears.

Sharp as lightning are the eyes of the guard,

nobody dares approach the padlocked door;

the prisoner’s cry in the nearby cell

sounds like an animal’s desperate roar.

According to Michael Coroza’s review of the work, Bullets and Roses: The Poetry of Amado V. Hernandez, a Bilingual Edition by Cirilo F. Bautista, where the said translation appears, the adage that “so much is lost in translation” is not true in the case of what Bautista has rendered in his aim.

At the bottom of the page of that poem, Amado V. Hernandez, wrote “Bartolina ng Muntinlupa—Abril 22, 1952.”

After five years of imprisonment, the Supreme Court delivered a decision, which allowed Hernandez to post bail. This was on June 20, 1956. Released from jail, he resumed his journalistic career. Hernandez would be honored with awards in numerous literary contests noted for their prestige, like the Commonwealth Literary Contest, Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards (four times) and many other journalism awards.

It was only in 1964, some eight years later, that the Supreme Court would finally acquit Hernandez in a decision that is now seen as one of the most important case studies for Philippine jurisprudence.

In jail or outside, Hernandez continued to write. He passed away in 1970. The University of the Philippines conferred on him a posthumous honorary doctorate. He would be first recipient of Ateneo de Manila’s Tanglaw ng Lahi Award. In 1973, Amado V. Hernandez would be made National Artist posthumously. With Jose Garcia Villa, he would be the first to be awarded the title, National Artist for Literature.

In September 2002, a conference honoring Amado V. Hernandez was held in the Cultural Center of the Philippines. Six months after that, a book on Hernandez, the man and his writings, was launched at the University of the Philippines.

Writing about this event, Alexander Martin Remollino in Bulatlat.com, talks about how the book was a kind of recuperation: “But though the essays in this book tackle various aspects of Hernandez’s life and works, they are bound by a common thread. At some point each of the essays stresses the significance of Hernandez as a writer who stood unequivocally for the Filipino people’s liberation from national and social oppression.” Remollino continued: “The emphasis on Hernandez’s historical role as a dedicated people’s writer—as one who depicted almost graphically in his writings the sufferings of common Filipinos, particularly workers and peasants, in the hands of the moneyed classes and their imperialist masters, and discoursed on the importance of struggle for revolutionary change—is of no small importance.”

The book was edited by Alice G. Guillermo, art critic and historian, and Charlie Samuya Veric, an Ateneo de Manila University professor, and has as title Suri at Sipat: Araling Ka Amado (Scrutiny and Sighting: Studies on Ka Amado). It was published by the Amado V. Hernandez Resource Center (AVHRC) and the National Commission on Culture and the Arts. In the book are essays from scholars, namely: Rosario TorresYu, Dr. Epifanio San Juan, Jr., Dr. Bienvenido Lumbera, Gelacio and Ramon Guillermo, Monico Atienza, Enrique Francia, and Veric.

Remollino wrote: “In its foreword, the AVHRC states: ‘Ang mga akdang tinipon sa aklat ay hindi lamang bunga ng kumperensya na naglunsad sa pagdiriwang ng sentenaryo na ginanap sa Cultural Center of the Philippines noong Setyembre 13, 2002. Pinili sila upang ipakita ang wastong pagtanaw, ang wastong pagsipat, sa katauhan at ambag ni Ka Amado sa panitikan at lipunan (The writings collected are not just products of the conference that initiated the centennial celebration at the Cultural Center of the Philippines on Sept. 13, 2002. They were chosen to show the correct way of looking at and analyzing Ka Amado and his contributions to literature and society.)”

In one of the essays in the book, the one written by Bienvenido Lumbera, who would also become a National Artist, mentioned the contradiction in the nature of the Gawad Pambansang Alagad ng Sining or the National Artist Award. In other words,why would a regime that thrived under a martial law regime, with all its breach of human rights and the killing of freedom, be honoring a man that primarily sought to banish that oppression in which, under the present repressive structure, this honor has been crafted?

For Lumbera, naming Hernandez as National Artist was a cooptation.

In Lumbera’s words: “Sa katunayan, inagaw si Hernandez sa kilusang mapagpalaya at sa panahong umiiral pa ang Batas Militar sa bansa,kinulong siya sa isang bilangguang kristal upang hindi siya pakinabangan bilang huwarang rebolusyonaryong manlilikha.” (Remollino’s translation: “In fact, Hernandez was seized from the liberation movement and at a time when martial law was still in place, he was placed in a crystal cage to prevent him from being emulated as a revolutionary artist.”)

Protest literature obviously never stopped with Hernandez. More writers would brave the repression and incarceration because of their writing and because they would continue to write in such a manner—a thumbing down of the political hypocrisy running across like a thematic strand in the Marcos legacy. Remollino would mention the following names as writers who advanced the causes Hernandez fought for—among them Liliosa Hilao, Jose Maria Sison, Ma. Lorena Barros, Bonifacio Ilagan, Jose F. Lacaba, Satur Ocampo, Luis Teodoro, and Bienvenido Lumbera.

Many more would write and perish in the hands of the martial law administration. Many would continue to write in the battlefields created because they did not believe in the words of peace and stability of the then present government.

One of the most interesting papers written on Amado V. Hernandez is one written by Ramon Guillermo, “Ang Tatlong Bersyon ng Tulang ‘Bayani’” ni Amado V. Hernandez 2001.

In this paper, Guillermo looks into a poem, which was written by Hernandez several times. The paper begins with the premise that in this poem, we can go into the core of the thoughts of Hernandez with regard to the Filipino worker in the society (tila maituturing na nagpapahayag ng pinakaubod ng kanyang kaisipan hinggil sa manggagawa sa lipunang Pilipino.)

Following the research done by Rose TorresYu, Guillermo claims the first version came out in Liwayway on Mayo 9, 1924. After that initial publication, the poem saw publication in the collection, Kayumanggi at iba pang Tula, in 1940.  After some thirtyseven years, another revision was released, the longest version, in 1961.

For Guillermo, the changes or revisions show how Hernandez images the growth of his thought as labor leader. In the shifts, Guillermo asks if they can also see the changes in the society and the level of consciousness of the labor class from 1924 until 1961.

The questions we ask about Amado V. Hernandez about his writings are, of course, not from the point of understanding but from the point of ponderance—for us to think more about what he said in novels and poems and what we can afford in terms of actions and responses.

POETRY & REVOLUTION

JOSE MA. SISON
(8 February 1939—present)

Tempting it is to connect Hernandez to Jose Maria Sison. Reputably, with his revolutionary leadership, Sison’s poetry reflects the ideologies he espouses and from which he urges his call to revolutionary action. These poems are contained in the anthology, Prison and Beyond.

Ideated is the love poem burning with the ardor of revolution in Sison’s poetry. Captured with his wife Julieta de Lima in 1977, Sison in the poem, “You are My Wife and Comrade,” in rhapsody and anxiety wrote:

You are my wife and comrade.

It is harsh that we are kept apart

By a bloodthirsty enemy with many snares.

We care for each other’s welfare.

In images that borrow from the classical romantic ideals of old English poetry:

Sison, however, recovers and remembers why they were there, in the first place and why they needed to go free:

But even in our forced separation

We remain one in our fierce devotion

To the noble cause of the revolution.

Firmly the struggle we must carry on.

Sison has a poem called “In the Dark Depths.” The poem echoes, without us insisting to create ideological fissures in which we can insert a revolutionary of the 70s to the diaspora of the 20s. But, listen to the echo of Bulosan in these lines:

The enemy wants to bury us

In the dark depths of prison

But shining gold is mined

From the dark depths of the earth

And the radiant pearl is dived

From the dark depths of the ocean.

We suffer but we endure

And draw up gold and pearl

From depths of character

Formed so long in struggle.

SALVAGED POEMS

EMMANUEL LACABA
(10 December 1948—18 March 1976)

In 1974, a young writer, Emmanuel “Eman” Lacaba, would join the New People’s Army. Years before that, he was one of the leading literary voices in the country. A published and a popular writer, his writing would pass the rigor of literary standards set by critics and readers steeped in the various traditions of literature.

From the underground, here are lines from his poems. One is called Open Letters to Filipino Artists.

The poem begins with an epigram: “A poet must also learn/how to lead an attack.” This is a quote from Ho Chi Minh.

The poem is composed of Three Cantos or Three Stanzas, each one a standalone paean to revolution and class struggle, each one written in a location, which varies, as the poetguerilla moves on, transfers location, improves his tactic as warrior. An epic tone, nearly monumental carves the landscape trodden by this warrior. Marvel at the internal rhythm of the first:

I.

Invisible the mountain routes to strangers:

For rushing toes an inch-wide strip on boulders

And for the hand that’s free a twig to grasp,

Or else we headlong fall below to rocks

And waterfalls of death so instant that

Too soon they’re red with skulls of carabaos.

But patient guides and teachers are the masses:

Of forty mountains and a hundred rivers;

Of plowing, planting, weeding, and the harvest;

And of a dozen dialects that dwarf

This foreign tongue we write each other in

Who must transcend our bourgeois origins.

The self examination is present, acute, as the poet becomes conscious of the language in which he writes down the soul of his quest for revolutionary change. The stanza was completed in “South Cotabato May 1st, 1975.”

The second part follows, began in “South Cotabato and completed in “Davao del Norte November 1975.”

These three stanzas are about his transformation “from the wild but shy young poet/Forever writing last poem after last poem.” The two lines are particularly poignant because anytime, the poem could be the last given the conditions under which his literature is being produced.

The symbols had become localized: “Like husks of coconuts he tears away/The billion layers of his selfishness.”

But Eman had time to manipulate images and rhyme: “Now of consequence is his anemia/From lack of sleep: no longer for Bohemia,/The lumpen culturati, but for the people, yes.”

In what I call the Third Canto, or third stanza, there is an underscoring of the collective albeit in the romantic way:

III.

We are tribeless and all tribes are ours.

We are homeless and all homes are ours.

We are nameless and all names are ours.

To the fascists we are the faceless enemy

Who come like thieves in the night, angels of death:

The ever moving, shining, secret eye of the storm.

The road less traveled by we’ve taken—

And that has made all the difference:

The barefoot army of the wilderness

We all should be in time. Awakened, the masses are

Messiah.   

Here among workers and peasants our lost

Generation has found its true, its only home.

—Davao del Norte January 1976

A forest clearing in Davao del Norte

Somewhere in the stanza, a reference to an old English poem allows us to revisit Eman’s literary origin, in classrooms where the poems taught were of foreign provenance. But, out there in the mountains, in the fastnesses he rewrote the symphony of the quietest lines: “The road less traveled by we’ve taken—/And that has made all the difference:/The barefoot army of the wilderness

We all should be in time. Awakened, the masses are/ Messiah.”

Religion and revolution are comrades in arms because they teach the same lessons, although, somewhere, in capitalism and consumerism, like the old poem, divergence had set in. Then, finally he says: “Here among workers and peasants our lost/Generation has found its true, its only home.”     

The last chapter, the third Canto, if you wish, was written in January 1976. That year, Eman Lacaba was killed.

Two books by Eman Lacaba were released after his death: Salvaged Poems and Salvaged Prose.

So many more have written, so many more had died. This essay, at this point, is vastly incomplete.

In the writing of this essay to honor those who celebrated labor and critiqued the failure of any sustainable agrarian reform, we are sorely missing women writers. From early on, even in that letter of Gregoria de Jesus to the village chief declaring herself free to marry Bonifacio to the Women of Malolos, the women certainly participated in many causes that called for social reforms.

In the Tagalog writings in major popular publications, there is a need to study how women writers asserted themselves in a maledominated publishing culture. Pushed to write about romances or love stories back in the 50s and 60s, they acquitted themselves in the genre. But there is also a call to peruse and focus on the works of underrated writers like Susana de Guzman. Writing more than 5o screenplays, most of them based on stories she had written for various magazines, de Guzman worked on plots that deceptively showed women being manipulated by men but, in many narratives, were the reasons why social order was restored in a love affair or family,

Many more literary subversions happen in literatures that come from the periphery, be they written in English or in the regional languages. Think of Socorro FederisTate, acutely middleclass in attitude and language, her short stories, are nonjudgmental view—and therefore terrifying—of how men abuse women in their grim silences and lack of responsibility, of how the lowland Christian romanticize the indigene, in the process scarring the soul of the narrator because she will never find it in herself to understand the “native.”

The absence of organizations that would prop up the ideologies articulated by women could be one one reason why many of them have remained “shadow writers.”

It is incumbent upon the new researchers to open up ways to examine literatures of the diaspora and revolution especially when labor has already included female workers from the 7os to the present, and thereby introduce to us a space where women write not because they have a room of their own but because they have carved their own homes with rooms for everyone—male or female, writing in the interstices, commenting around the margins.

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